Plenty of steps can be taken if you notice an oil spill in nature

PHOTO PROVIDED Shown is an oil spill, creating a rainbow-hue on the surface of the water. Hikers walking along a waterway in the region may notice such a sight, and there’s various steps you can take when seeing one.

While hiking along one of the region’s waterways, you notice what appears to be a rainbow-hued oil spill floating across the surface of the water.

What should be the next step?

“When you see a sheen like that, there is usually one of two causes,” said Randy Farmerie, program manager for environmental cleanup with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “One is that it may be petroleum, but there is also an iron-reducing bacteria that we see quite a bit that causes the same looking sheen. If it is this sort of naturally occurring phenomenon, there’s really nothing we can do.”

Fortunately, there are ways to determine what is causing the sheen.

“If you stir it with a stick or do something to break it up, and it was caused by the iron-reducing bacteria, the sheen will break up into little blocky patterns,” said Farmerie. “If it is caused by petroleum, it will swirl around and go back to how it was. Sometimes, the iron-reducing bacteria sheens give up a Sulphur-like smell, but that can be erratic based on wind and other factors and not something you can rely on.”

If it is petroleum-based, then in most cases, according to Farmerie, it is something that should be reported — and in our region, will likely make it to DEP’s emergency response team, led by Tom Mears.

“We have six hazardous materials technicians covering 14 counties — and they are trained in both offensive and defensive measures in reference to spills and other environmental impacts,” he said. “Anything from a vehicle accident to some sort of industrial mishap, plus any number of agricultural issues. We get calls from county workers, PEMA (the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency) and even individuals who are calling about anything from a homeowner having concerns about gravel in a stream bed or their neighbor burning garbage all the way to an oil rig on fire. It covers a pretty wide gamut.”

When it comes to reporting a potential petroleum spill, location is very important, as is pinpointing the time of day the spill was discovered, according to Means.

“Knowing exactly where it is can be critical — providing a cross street or a GPS address, which you can get from your phone — is very helpful,” he said. “And then, we’ll need a description of what is being seen and other details that will help us as we investigate.”

While reporting a potential spill, Farmerie stressed the importance of safety first.

“We never want anyone to take unnecessary risks to document or report anything like this. If it is a tanker that went over, for example, please don’t wander up to it to get good pictures,” he said. “It is not worth risking life or limb. Instead, if it happens, call it in with the details you do have (from a distance) and let the professionals who are trained in emergency response handle it.”

Megan Lehman, community relations manager for the DEP’s Northcentral regional office, added the DEP respects that there is a hierarchy of emergency response.

“When there is a truck accident, and there is an injury or entrapment or, God forbid, a fatality, we don’t have the priority there. Sometimes it can be hours after a spill before we can really access the site, and a lot of times, things have already washed downstream by then,” she said. “It can be hard to tell what was released, where and how much because you are dealing with kind of a stale scene — however, it is a necessary process for emergency personally to have the priority first.”

Vehicle accidents make up a large majority of petroleum spills addressed by the DEP’s response team.

“In terms of those accidents, they can range anywhere from a fuel tank in a personal car to a tanker truck spill and everything in between,” said Farmerie. “All together, vehicle accidents make up the biggest single source of petroleum spills that we see.”

Home heating oil spills can also be common, Mears added.

“As the weather changes from fall going into winter, the ground starts to freeze and heave, or we go into spring and the ground is getting soft. Oil tanks can tip over, and homeowners don’t always do due diligence to make sure tanks are placed correctly. The bottom of tanks can also get wet and rust out over time.”

There are many variables that impact how each spill is investigated, Farmerie admitted.

“When a call comes in, we will evaluate it and dispatch to get a better look. We get calls where someone spilled two ounces of petroleum – that one we likely won’t spent a great deal of time investigating, to be honest,” he said. “If it is a significant spill, we will have somebody go out and look at it and determine what can be done.”

Whenever a spill involves a waterway, one of the variables assessed, according to Mears, is if there are any surface intakes for drinking water nearby.

“If it is some sort of wellfield or a place where communities draw water, we take special measures and notify downstream users if that’s the case so they can take appropriate action,” he said. “That’s a pretty big item on our list of things to do when we find a spill in water.”

Sometimes, investigators are not able to identify the source of the spill, but if the source is located, the responsible party is asked to conduct the cleanup.

“The cleanup can vary anywhere between putting in boons and pads to try to control a sheen, to a much bigger project that involves soil excavation or something like that,” said Farmerie. “It doesn’t have to reach a stream for us to do something about it – if it is soil contamination, it still has the potential to pollute waters, and that needs to be cleaned up where it happens.”

Oil-absorbent boons, or pads, never fully collect all of the petroleum that is spilled, Farmerie added.

“They will collect a significant amount of it, but there is not a technology out there that is going to get it all. Ultimately, we do all we can, however, to prevent it from getting into a waterway,” he said. “Sometimes, an underflow dam is used where you can stop the petroleum from moving while allowing some water past it. Then you use a vac truck – which is like a giant vacuum cleaner – to suck up all the petroleum and other liquids behind the dam.”

Initial aquatic impacts can actually be pretty minimal – at least to fish and other creatures that stay below the petroleum floating on the surface – as long as the spills are properly addressed and cleaned up, Mears suggested.

“Petroleum can be pretty impactful visually, but there are many other things you cannot see such as pesticides or something else where just a little can get into a waterway and you have a really bad outcome,” he said. “For instance, even something like milk, depending on the time of year and the temperature, can have a really bad impact on a stream.”

“We’ve had incidents where petroleum is floating on the top of the water and fish are swimming below it without any discernible impact because the petroleum is floating above them,” added Farmerie. “As long as you get it off pretty quickly, it doesn’t seem to have an immediate impact.”

However, petroleum spills that aren’t properly addressed can cause a deadly ripple effect on all levels of aquatic life, according to reports from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“All types of freshwater organisms are susceptible to the deadly effects of spilled oil, including mammals, aquatic birds, fish, insects, microorganisms, and vegetation. In addition, the effects of spilled oil on freshwater microorganisms, invertebrates, and algae tend to move up the food chain and affect other species,” the EPA shares on a release available at its website’s archives.

The Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association serves an 11,000-square-mile watershed of the Susquehanna River, including Sullivan, Lycoming, Clinton, Union and Northumberland counties. Read more at www.middlesusquehannariverkeeper.org.


Among the potential negative impacts of petroleum spills on standing freshwater bodies, according to the EPA:

• The bottoms of standing water bodies, which are often muddy, serve as homes to many worms, insects, and shellfish. Lake bottoms also serve has a breeding ground and food source for these organisms and higher animals. Oil in sediments may be very harmful because sediment traps the oil and affects the organisms that live in or feed off the sediments.

• In the open water, oil can be toxic to the frogs, reptiles, fish, waterfowl and other animals that make the water their home. “Oiling” of plants and grasses that are rooted or float in the water also can occur, harming both the plants and the animals that depend on them for food and shelter. Fisheries located in freshwater also are subject to the toxic effects of oil.

• On the surface of the water, water bugs that skim the water surface and floating plants such as water lilies are threatened by oil slicks that spread across the surface.

• In the shoreline habitats of lakes and other bodies of standing water, cattails and other weeds and grasses provide many important functions for life in and around the water. They serve as food sources, nesting grounds for many types of animals, and shelter for small animals. Oil spills can coat these areas, affecting the plants and the organisms that depend on them.

• Marsh environments are among the most sensitive freshwater habitat to oil spills due to the minimal water flow. Oil spills have a widespread impact on a host of interconnected species. For example, lush marsh vegetation is used as nurseries for shellfish and fish, as a food source for many organisms, and a home for fish, birds, and mammals.

Potential negative impacts on flowing freshwater, again according to the EPA, include:

• Oil spilled into most rivers often collects along the banks, where the oil clings to plants and grasses. The animals that ingest these contaminated plants may also be affected.

• Rocks found in and around flowing water serve as homes for mosses, which are an important basic element in a freshwater habitat’s food chain. Spilled oil can cover these rocks, killing the mosses and disrupting the local ecology.

To report a potential petroleum spill situation, contact your county emergency response team. You can find more information about petroleum spills and steps you can take to avoid potential issues by visiting www.dep.pa.gov and search for “petroleum spills.”


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